Corporate Case Study: Ameritrade cashes in on renewed media interest

Last year, Ameritrade brought most of its communications in-house. Now, its team works closely with the media to sustain the company as a voice for individual traders.

Last year, Ameritrade brought most of its communications in-house. Now, its team works closely with the media to sustain the company as a voice for individual traders.

Warren Buffett is apparently not the only oft-quoted financial giant in Omaha. Since its founding as a discount brokerage nearly three decades ago, Nebraska-based Ameritrade Holding Corporation has developed into one of the best-known financial-service retailers in the US, with nearly 2,000 employees, 3.5 million clients, and a market capitalization of more than $5.6 billion. One of the keys to the company's success is its ability to not just cater to the needs of individual investors, but, in many cases, to serve as their voice in the financial press. "We get a lot of calls from reporters looking at where the individual's money is going and whether there is still growth in online investing," notes Katrina Becker, senior manager of Ameritrade's corporate communications. Though it's been in existence as a discount broker for nearly three decades, Ameritrade saw its role - and its profile - expand dramatically over the past 10 years, thanks to the advent of online trading, which in many ways brought the masses to Wall Street. Indeed, at least part of Ameritrade's growth as a brand is tied to the coverage it got from tech-business reporters during the dot-com boom. While noting that interest is not near where it was five years ago, Becker says, "You're starting to see more of those stories again. We're excited about that because we have a lot of innovative technology and want to be in those pieces." But Ameritrade is also changing its traditional approach, using both marketing and communications to reach well beyond today's active stock trader. "We're still very interested in catering to the active trader because that's what the firm really has built its success on," explains Kurt Halvorson, EVP and chief administrative officer, "But we're also looking at growing the overall share-of-wallet of our clients. We know that they have money elsewhere that they're investing for long-term needs. We're interested in that, as well." One key to executing this strategy has been to expand Ameritrade's media targets well beyond the personal finance press, such as Money and Kiplinger's Personal Finance. "In order to include more long-term investors, we are doing more reaching out to the consumer media," says Donna Kush, MD of corporate communications. Ramping up in-house comms What's surprising is that Ameritrade has been able to continue to deliver these messages to a national audience with little outside help. Last year, Ameritrade bucked the trend of many large companies by ending its relationship with its agency and bringing most of its communications in-house. The move was made with more than just cost-savings in mind, says Kush. "We felt we would be more effective and efficient and produce a better quality and quantity of work by developing and leveraging our team's skill sets," she explains. "And although we reduced our agency fees considerably, we didn't eliminate them all together because the focus was to reorganize to maximize our corporate communication talents." Kush now runs a hand-picked team of seven staffers, who manage everything from internal communications and investor relations to press outreach and even media training for its top-level executives in Omaha, as well as other offices around the country. "Since we are such a small team, it is crucial for all of us to be multifunctional and cover for each other as needed," Kush adds. "We've been through seven acquisitions in about the last two years alone, including a major transaction with one of our main competitors, Datek, which instantly took us from a small-cap to a mid-cap company. And we have been through other initiatives that present positive challenges and growing experiences." Becker argues that keeping most PR and IR responsibility in-house is crucial for a company facing a fast-changing economic landscape. "We're both a financial services and a tech company, which means we evolve quickly," she says. "That's difficult to do when you have an agency that's not on the ground with the company. Agencies are certainly very creative and can come up with a great pitch. But if it's not something that will help us open accounts or gain greater market share, we're not sure we want to put the energy in." Halvorson cites another key benefit of keeping most corporate communications in-house. "It's really allowed us to create that one corporate voice and that one sense of messaging," he says. "We have periodic meetings with marketing to make sure any messaging external to the firm mirrors the overall messaging in terms of the feel and tone, as well as direction." Ameritrade does retain McGrath Matter Associates in New York to provide communications consulting. As part of that deal, Kush was able to lure Ann Pinkerton from the company's previous AOR, Euro RSCG Magnet, over to McGrath Matter to continue her work on behalf of Ameritrade. "I work with them to set up interviews for their CEO, Joe Moglia, and other top executives, and also talk to them about trends that should be leveraged," Pinkerton says. "It's mostly ongoing work, but there are occasional new projects. Donna's pretty clear on what she needs from the outside and what she already has internally." Leveraging media interest While the perception may be that an Omaha headquarters - far from not only Wall Street, but also the major financial press - could be a PR obstacle, the corporate communications team insists that's not the case. "It's not anywhere near the challenge it would have been 25 years ago," notes Ann Pedersen, who recently joined Ameritrade as manager of corporate communications after a career in broadcast television. "We can e-mail and call reporters all the time, and our executives are in New York every month." Even the financial TV networks are willing to work with Ameritrade to get company executives to comment on everything from their latest quarterly results to individual investing trends. "We have access to several different media outlets, including the local NBC affiliate if its MSNBC and CNBC," Pedersen says. "And the University of Nebraska-Omaha also has up-link facilities." Often Ameritrade executives, especially Moglia, a former football coach and Merrill Lynch SVP, are called to comment on the individual trader's mood, including how the election impacted investing and other trends. But Becker cautions, "We have to be very careful with that. We can talk about what our clients are doing in general, but we can never comment on a particular stock. So we make sure during our media training to let people understand you can't say it like this because that would be construed as indirect advice." Some of Ameritrade's messages are delivered through one-time PR campaigns, but Kush says she also tries to leverage the company's mandated financial statements. "We have an earnings call every quarter, and we use that to refresh our messaging and also to work out answers to all the possible questions from different reporters," she says. "Our attitude is that if we come across a question during an interview that we hadn't considered, then we're not doing our job." Kush meets with her staff on a weekly basis, but other than that, she says, "I prefer to take a hands-off approach as much as possible," she says. "We believe in leveraging our strengths, so we tend to specialize in writing, editing, media relations, strategic planning, event planning, and other areas, but we have a lot of crossover as we service our internal clients." PR contacts MD of corporate comms Donna Kush Senior manager of corporate comms Katrina Becker Corporate comms manager Ann Pedersen EVP/chief administrative officer Kurt Halvorson Chief writer/project coordinator Sam Achelpohl Project coordinator Kim Hillyer Project coordinator Mary Schreiber PR agency McGrath Matter Associates

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